Random reflections on being a candidate, by Graham Cox

It’s a cold, wet January day in London and I have been summonsed to the ‘war room’ in Conservative HQ. It’s my turn to meet the legendary Aussie, Lynton ‘barnacles on the boat’ Crosby, and hear my fate.
Having only been selected as the Hove Conservative candidate the previous July, we are one of the last target seats to have been polled by ‘Lynton.’

The previous October had seen the (Lord) Ashcroft ‘marginal’ poll for Hove, which suggested Labour were ahead but just about within reach. The bookies certainly had Labour firm favourites to regain the ‘bellwether’ Hove seat. With Mike Weatherley having been forced to stand down because of his battle with stage 3 oesophageal cancer we had no ‘incumbency factor’. Labour had picked a sensible, articulate candidate in Peter Kyle, with strong links to the Blairite pressure group, Progress, and it has to be said the advantage of matinee idol good looks. Anything better than the Ashcroft poll suggested we still had a chance though.

In his Aussie accent, and with just the occasional swear word, Lynton took me through the results. Labour were 6 points ahead but ‘don’t worry there is a margin of error of +/- 4% so it could be as close as 2%,’ said Lynton kindly.  It seemed two thirds of Hove residents did not want a Conservative Government, and more of them had heard of Peter than me.

Discussing the results afterwards over a coffee in St James St with my team (well me and my campaign manager) we comforted ourselves that maybe it really was ‘all to play for’. The residents of Hove might not want a Conservative majority Government, had barely heard of me, the margin of error might actually mean Labour were 10 points ahead but at least they were not keen on Ed Miliband for Prime Minister.

Fast-forward 4 months and its now 3 days before polling day. Weeks of door knocking, telephone calls, canvassing, surveying, hustings, media interviews and endless leaflet deliveries are nearly over.  Once again I have made my brilliant campaign manager crunch the numbers in our state of the art campaign tool ‘Vote Source’. Over 16,000 Hove residents have told us they will ‘definitely or probably’ vote Conservative. ‘Turn all them out on Thursday and pick up another 2000 we do not know about and, you know, we can win,’ was the optimistic verdict.

The rest, as they say, is history – not only did we turn out those 16,000 Conservative voters, we actually found another 4,800. Over 20,800 people voted for me, the highest Conservative vote in Hove since 1992. At least 2,000 more than even our most optimistic projections – and of course I lost.

Now the dust has settled, I have the time to listen to Test Match Special, and pen an article for the Brighton Politics Blog (no I am not saying who asked me) reflecting on the experience of being a candidate.

It really was huge honour to have been selected by local Conservatives to contest the Hove seat. I had been born here, lived in the area most of my life and was the last Police Commander before the old Hove Police Division was taken over by (sorry amalgamated with) Brighton.
Being a local councillor for Westbourne had its frustrations compared to policing, not least the petty bickering and inability to get things done, but helping local people find the way through the tortuous council bureaucracy was intensely satisfying. More than once it seemed to me that I was performing a role akin to a caring vicar, but without the religion (certainly not in Brighton anyway!)

I would probably have carried on doing that – electors permitting – had Mike not announced he would stand down. I knew he had been seriously ill but had always respected his decision to treat this as a private matter and had anticipated that now he was in remission that he would stand again. It was only because it was Hove that I put myself forward.

Despite the disappointment of the result I am so glad I did. Normal life ceased to exist for 9 months. Knocking on doors every day and speaking to people about politics and the issues which concern them is strange behaviour. I did not meet too many ‘errupters’, as my Green opponent, Christopher Hawtree, described those who did not welcome a visit from someone asking for their vote.

I particularly enjoyed canvassing in Portslade. The residents of Portslade and Mile Oak definitely felt that their part of the city was neglected and to some extent forgotten about compared to the more ‘fashionable’ parts of town. Maybe that is why even those who had no intention of voting for me were unfailingly polite. In Portslade I met many people who responded to my questions with something like ‘ I’m a Labour man, always have been, but thanks for calling and good luck.’
This contrasted somewhat with the response in the Victorian villas, newly gentrified terraced housing and grand flats of the latte drinking (with soya milk) areas of central Hove. More than once I nervously knocked on the (stripped pine) door of a £1million house, took in the Farrow and Ball wallpaper in the hallway, as the householder exclaimed, ‘I’m a senior manager in the Strategy Consultation, Coordination and Service Delivery Department at ‘x’ Council and I would not vote Conservative as long as I have a hole in my axxx,’ abruptly followed by a ringing slam.

The result in Hove actually fitted with similar results in parts of Metropolitan London (e.g. Hampstead) and interestingly Cambridge and Oxford. I never actually met the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hove, and am not sure he ever visited the seat from his home in Surrey. It was always obvious that the Liberal Democrat ‘vote’ would collapse here, and in contrast to the Midlands, southwest and more rural areas, in newly Metropolitan Hove this was always likely to benefit Labour more.

In fairness to Peter Kyle he fought an excellent campaign. It was no use me complaining about his targeting of the Brunswick and Adelaide and Goldsmid wards with a ‘vote Green and you get the Tories’ message – this was a sensible electoral tactic and I would have done exactly the same in his position.

Where I do take a certain amount of pride is in the effort we forced Labour to make in order to gain Hove. They had to throw huge amounts of resources – paid campaign staff, activists from across the country, volunteers and cash (and a state of the art office!) – directly at Hove. Every weekend, well according to social media anyway, they had over 50 people coming here canvassing. They carpet bombed the seat with national direct mail, they had banks of people telephone canvassing this seat specifically and on election day itself they had 100’s (one message on Facebook suggested they had 600 volunteers here) of people bussed in to knock up their voters.

Once they realised the fight we were putting up Progress, the Blairite pressure group, pretty much sent all their members to Hove to campaign from Christmas onwards.
We could never compete directly with this – nor indeed would it have been a wise use of resources by the Conservative Party nationally to have done so.

However our small but dedicated local team did get out and deliver and canvass like no other local team in a target seat. According to the Ashcroft polls we actually managed more voter contact than any other marginal seat being targeted by Labour.

As a result of this Labour were not able to redirect any resources from Hove to other target seats (which at one point I am assuming they been hoping to do). To some extent, using an analogy from my police days (military folk will know what I am on about) we were the ‘tethered goat.’ Labour had to expend so many resources fighting us that their big guns, their lions, could not go to other seats in the south they had hoped to win.

There may even be a reasonable case to claim that despite Hove providing the only gain for Labour in the southeast outside London, our small team here played a significant part in the overall Conservative victory.

That rather large crumb of comfort was not for me though the highlight of the campaign. That came in a marvellous hour I spent talking with a full class of year 6 pupils at Cottesmore School. The final question they asked certainly had me stumped – ‘Do you think Mr. Cox we should we return the Elgin Marbles to Greece?’ ‘Err, umm, yes possibly, may be not, waffle, Greek economy, err perhaps but I do not really know’ was the gist of my less than convincing answer. Sadly the question had come before the appearance of the Ed Stone.

What will I do next? To be honest I have no idea (all offers gratefully received). As well as enjoying the cricket, and picking the first winner of the Derby for 20 years under a majority Conservative Government, I am reading Steve Hilton’s book, ‘More Human’. It’s idealistic, probably unrealistic in places, but buried in his vision are coherent ideas, which all the Parties should at least consider. Decentralisation is a theme running though it, with proposals for 10,000 directly elected mayors.

Brighton and Hove, for all its famed vibrancy, has struggled for years under minority administrations that have as a result ceded too much power to the loud but small set of people who specialise in being against things. We have an opportunity to create a southern powerhouse in the Brighton City region, which can rival anything that is happening in Greater Manchester or Leeds. Steve Hilton, born in Brighton, for elected Mayor of our city region. That would be something I could campaign for.

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Vote for the independent Ian Chisnall in Thursday’s Police and Crime Commissioner election

It is never right not to vote. The vote has been hard fought for and should be respected.

On Thursday we are being invited to vote in the ridiculous Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Sussex. Many people have said that they are not going to vote. I would urge everybody to cast a ballot. You may not like these elections and the party you support might not be fielding a candidate. Nevertheless, you have a democratic duty to vote.

At worst, spoil your ballot. Write a message of protest. Better still, write the name of someone not standing at the bottom of the ballot paper. If you are sad and really desperate, vote for the Brighton Politics Blogger!

Alternatively, and this is what I shall be doing, is to vote for the independent candidate, Ian Chisnall. Ian is standing on a platform that includes opposing the party political nature of these elections. I think he is absolutely right.

Everyone has assumed that Katy Bourne, the Conservative Party candidate, will comfortably win this election. I think that is a correct assumption and, given that there will be a PCC, she will make a perfectly competent Commissioner. I’m pleased that it is likely to be the only woman on the ballot paper who will be elected.

But as Alan Clark used to say, ACHAB (“anything can happen at backgammon”. I don’t understand why he said it, it just makes me sound well read!). But I think that there is a very slim chance, very slim indeed, that people around the country might vote in sufficient numbers for independent candidates in these elections.

Therefore, if you don’t like the whole idea of these Commissioners, or if you don’t want to cast a vote for a party political candidate for such a position, or if you are just mischievous, please vote for Ian Chisnall.

The Greens are well placed to have 2 MEPs elected in 2014

Over the next two years there will be two key elections that people in Brighton and Hove will be able to vote in. The first is the election in November of the Police Commissioner. The result of this pan-Sussex vote will almost certainly see the election of a Conservative into what could become a highly politicised, controversial position.

I think it is such a shame that the Labour Party is fielding a candidate since it has no chance whatsoever of winning. I have said before that an independent candidate, such as Ian Chisnell has a much greater chance of producing a shock result than someone from one of the opposition parties.

But the real reason for wanting an independent is that this role should be free from narrow party political influence.

But more intriguing is the election to the European Parliament in 2014. This election is based on a multi-member regional constituency across the South East. 10 MEPs are elected from this region. Last time the parties, all of whom field a slate of candidates, achieved the following results:

  • Conservative 812,288; 34.8%; 4 (total votes; 5 of vote; MEPs elected)
  • UKIP 440,002; 18.8%; 2
  • Liberal Democrats 230,340; 14.1%; 2
  • Green Party 271,506; 11.6%; 1
  • Labour 192,592; 8.2%; 1

No other party polled sufficient votes to have an MEP elected. The British National party, with 101,769 votes (4.4%) came sixth.

The interesting question is what will happen to the Lib Dem vote. It can hardly expect to hold firm. This will be true in every election coming up over the next three years. Some of its vote might transfer to Labour but it is likely that the Greens will benefit most.

The Green Party itself will no doubt benefit from the higher profile that the party has enjoyed following the election of Caroline Lucas to Westminster and the election of the first ever Green Council in Brighton and Hove.

My friend, the Enigmatic Flo, will no doubt tell me that Green support itself will not hold firm, with Labour being the main beneficiary. But European elections are not that straightforward and it gives disenchanted voters from across the South East a positive opportunity to vote for, and have elected, non-mainstream parties. I include the Greens and UKIP in this category. Together they had 3 MEPs elected with Labour returning just Peter Skinner.

The Green Party will almost certainly take over from the Lib Dems in third place and, if the UKIP vote weakens, the Greens could be challenging for second place. In either case, it would result, almost certainly, in the election of two Green MEPs.

The Green Party is in the middle of the selection process for its candidates for this election. Particular interest should be given to who comes second and third, assuming that the current MEP, Keith Taylor, is number one on the Green list. The Green party would be well advised to select a woman is number two on its list in order to present a balanced ticket.

Locally, three candidates have put themselves forward, Jason Kitcat, Ania Kitcat and Alex Phillips. My prediction is that Alex Phillips is most likely to appeal to Green Party members in the region and would be a valuable asset at number two on the Green list. I would anticipate that in May 2014 Ms Phillips will join Mr Taylor in Brussels.

Reflecting on the actions and comments of Francis Maude, Ben Duncan and Dawn Barnett

This week I reflect on three politicians who have captured the headlines for words and actions.

The first is Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Member and MP for Horsham, who encouraged people to store spare petrol supplies in their garage. Other than the danger associated with storing a highly flammable material, it showed how out of touch he is with ordinary people. Just 22% of households have garages. His comments were part of a truly pathetic attempt by the Conservatives to create a diversion to Pasty-gate, the Granny Tax, and other failures from the budget, not least the tax give away to the rich.

Tragically and inevitably someone has got seriously hurt. Maude should resign and Cameron should apologise for his comments and those of his government colleagues over the ‘fuel crisis’.

The second politician is local Green councillor, Ben Duncan, over his four-letter outburst about pasties. Today he has apologised after he realised that local baker, Forfars, which has a shop in his ward, is set to lose £250,000 because of the new tax on pasties and pies.

Ben Duncan said he was just joking: “I’m amazed anyone took my comment seriously and do apologise if it caused any offence. It was a joke that was responding to the news because it’s not the only thing going on in the world. The point I was trying to make was that the debate about pasties is distracting from larger issues.

“Clearly I sympathise with any business that is suffering from the appallingly unfair budget. I would love to go and visit the bakery and sample some of their vegan goods.”

But Ben Duncan is inviting ‘open season’ on himself with a further ill-advised tweet quoted by today’s Argus: “You’ve got to be so careful on Twitter – scumbag journos are watching your every move!”

Even Christopher Hawtree distanced himself from Ben Duncan’s unguarded comments, saying that Ben Duncan is “the Green’s Prince Philip”.

It is said that in politics, worse than being accused of incompetence, is to be ridiculed. I think that councillor Hawtree has just ridiculed his Green colleague.

My third and final comment relates to Conservative councillor Dawn Barnett. Police had to ask her to leave a site in her ward and next to where she lives where an unofficial travellers camp has been set up. Police advised her to go home for her own safety.

It may come as surprise to my three regular readers, Biker Dave, Momma Grizzly and Doris, as well as to my latest follower, the Enigmatic Flo, that I will continue to defend councillor Barnett, although I have fundamental differences with her on the issue of travellers.

I don’t know whether councillor Barnett was doing anything to provoke a breach of the peace. I believe that councillors must be able to go about their business without hindrance, particularly in the ward they represent. If councillor Barnett’s safety was at risk, the police must put in place measures to protect her.

She should be allowed to visit the site of the travellers and her well being must be safeguarded. If she was to commit an offence (and I doubt she would) then the police should take action against her. Her mere presence is not cause to ask her to go home.

Perhaps councillor Duncan, as the Cabinet Member for Public Protection, will use his good offices to ensure that a fellow councillor can go freely about her business .

The case for an Independent Police Commissioner

There is an investing article in this week’s Latest 7, an odd little magazine but with a great writer in Frank le Duc. This week he features the only (currently) independent candidate for the Sussex Police Commissioner, Ian Chisnall. Click here for Ian’s website.

Around the country, elections for Commissioners will take place in November. According to Frank le Duc “Two Conservatives have declared their hand – East Sussex County Council leader Peter Jones and Arun District Council member Paul Dendle, who also has a county-wide role with the party. The current police authority chairman Steve Waight may also throw his hat into the ring for the Tories.”

The Greens and Lib Dems are not expected to field candidates in the Sussex Police Commissioner election.

Labour’s Paul Richards has declared his hand although a formal selection has yet to take place. Labour originally opposed the creation of Police Commissioners, but have now decided to contest these elections.

Let’s face it, the official Conservative candidate is going to be elected. All electoral mathematics points to a substantial majority. That means that it will be Conservative Party members who will, in reality, choose the Police Commissioner. This can’t be a healthy state of affairs. It means that the successful candidate has to appeal to the narrow perspective of Tory members in deepest Sussex.

The ethical challenge for Conservative Party is whether it will organise an open selection, allowing anyone in Sussex to cast a vote in order to ensure that the elected Commissioner has wider credibility.

If not, I would suggest that the Labour Party should join with the Greens and Lib Dems by not fielding a candidate, and all supporting and campaigning for an independent candidate. Labour has nothing to lose and everything to gain – the outside possibility of not having a Party political, specifically a Conservative, Commissioner.

The Legacy of New Labour, great if you are into lap dancing and gambling; shame about the post office

Latest government figures show how Britain has evolved under new Labour. Since 1997 the number of lap dancing clubs has increased by 1,150%, betting shops by 39%, and casinos up 27%.

On the other hand public libraries have reduced by 6%, police stations by 8%, schools are down 10%, swimming pools 21%, and public toilets down 23%.

And then there are post offices, down from 19,000 in 1997 to 11,500 today, a drop of 39%. This is the legacy of new Labour. Not a lot more needs to be said.

News of the World: We don’t believe the Police

The Metropolitan Police this evening said that there was no evidence to suggest that there had been widespread phone hacking by the News of the World and that there was no new evidence to warrant a further investigation

What is unfortunate for the Met is that, after the G20 demonstrations and the death of Ian Tomlinson, the misinformation put out following the shooting of John Charles de Menezes, and the MPs expenses scandal, there is suspicion amongst the general public and cynicism amongst journalists.

The person who must be on the back foot over this is David Cameron. He was too quick to vindicate Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, now his Communications Director.

Whatever the truth, and I suspect the practice was far more widespread than will ever be established, the public will think that this is yet another cover-up and Cameron will look shifty all the time that he defends Coulson.